When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”Matthew 16:13-23
Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent
Luke 7:18b-23 (Matthew 11:2-6)
At that time, John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” When the men came to the Lord, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’”Luke 7:18-20
Was the Forerunner expressing a doubt about Jesus’ identity? The question from John’s prison cell has vexed interpreters since the time of the early Church and responses have fallen on both sides.
If the question did not arise from real doubt in the Baptist, interpreters have inclined to consider it a “fictive doubt.”1 The question becomes a means of strengthening the faith of John’s disciples in Jesus, “the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27). St. Jerome appeals to the episode of the raising of Lazarus in which Jesus asked, “Where have you laid him?” (John 11:34) to support this thesis. As Jesus did not inquire with a doubting heart, neither did the Baptist, Jerome argues.2
The most common interpretation in modern times is to recognize “John’s real doubt, hesitation, or surprise that Jesus was not turning out to be the kind of messiah that he expected.”3 Among the Church Fathers, Tertullian alone attributed real doubt to the Baptist, explaining that the Holy Spirit had only gifted him with partial knowledge for the purpose of preparing the way of the Lord.4
Both groups of interpreters have one thing in common: the desire to portray genuine faith. The majority of patristic commentators and their followers, minus Tertullian, found any hint of wavering faith in the Baptist inconsistent with the iconic image of the heroic saint and prophet. Can doubt enter the mind of one who earlier declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)? And further, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34). The underlying assumption is that doubt and despondency have no place in the heroic journey of faith.
Critics of this view find the opposite to be more authentic:
Scripture never presents the saints as ideally faultless, and therefore with holy truthfulness never conceals any sign of their imperfection or weakness. Nothing is more natural than that the Great Baptist—to whom had been granted but a partial revelation—should have felt deep anguish at the calm and noiseless advance of a Kingdom for which, in his theocratic and Messianic hopes, he had imagined a very different proclamation. Doubtless too his faith like that of Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), of Job in his trials (Job 3:1), and of Jeremiah in prison (Jeremiah 20:7), might be for a moment drowned by the tragic briefness, and disastrous eclipse of his own career; and he might hope to alleviate by this message the anguish which he felt when he contrasted the joyous brightness of our Lord’s Galilean ministry with the unalleviated gloom of his own fortress-prison among the black rocks at Makor. ‘If Jesus be indeed the promised Messiah,’ he may have thought, ‘why am I, His Forerunner, suffered to languish undelivered,—the victim of a wicked tyrant?’ The Baptist was but one of those many glorious saints whose careers God, in His mysterious Providence, has suffered to end in disaster and eclipse that He may shew us how small is the importance which we must attach to the judgment of men, or the rewards of earth. “We fools accounted his life madness, and his end to be without honour: how is he numbered among the children of God, and his lot is among the saints!” Wis 5:20. We may be quite sure that “in the fiery furnace God walked with His servant so that his spirit was not harmed, and having thus annealed his nature to the utmost that this earth can do, He took him hastily away and placed him among the glorified in Heaven.”5
The bare text of Scripture rarely supplies insight into the subjectivity from which statements and questions arise. Did the imprisoned John calmly face his execution and send his disciples to Jesus in order to transition them to the one “who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me” (John 1:30)? Or did he languish in the darkness and silence of his dungeon wondering, “Where were the axe and fan and the holy wind and fire of judgment?”6
In the end, the full subjectivity of other persons is inaccessible to all except the divine mind. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, not even the angels can read other minds, for “what is proper to God does not belong to the angels.”7
Whatever was John’s state of mind in Herod’s prison, Jesus commended him as the greatest of the prophets born of women, a passage which immediately follows his response to the Baptist’s question. “Yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he,” Jesus continued, indicating an order of grace and glory far surpassing anything attainable in this world (Luke 7:28).8
Jesus also paired himself with John in the figure of children in the marketplace calling out, “We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep” (Luke 7:32). John and Jesus both died unjustly, the Precursor paving the way for the Christ who ultimately conquered sin and death.
The variety of interpretations of John’s question from prison leads to a topic deeper than exegetical conclusions, namely, what is faith? Does faith mean never doubting, faltering, or wavering for a moment? Does it mean that moments of special grace cannot be followed by moments of intense darkness?
Scripture does not flinch from portraying real struggles with faith. Peter, James, and John ran away from Gethsemane after witnessing the glory of the Transfiguration (Mark 14:50). Peter, the recipient of the Father’s direct enlightenment concerning Jesus’ true identity (Matthew 16:16), denied Jesus three times. Mary Magdalene failed to recognize the “gardener” at the empty tomb (John 20:15). Thomas disbelieved the testimony of the other disciples about the risen Christ (John 20:25).
The strongest proof of the vulnerability of human nature in the face of trial and tribulation is the life of Jesus himself who cried out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
If the Son of God himself felt abandoned by the Father in his humanity though he was inseparable from the Godhead, the weakness of passible human nature is revealed. Christ’s sinlessness did not shield him from the depths of human suffering and sorrow. Immaculate Mary, whose heart was “pierced” by a sword, shared in her Son’s suffering (Luke 2:35).
In these supreme examples of union with the Father’s will during the darkest hour in history, it is possible to admit that the journey of faith can have moments of testing even to the point of feeling forsaken. The God-man Jesus Christ conquered his own desire to avoid the Cross with the resolve, “not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42; Matthew 26:39).
Faith does not doubt the objective and fundamental goodness of God in the midst of trial. “I AM WHO AM” burns with an unquenchable fire of Love at the heart of all existence, even if no creature exists to experience it. Christ who lives in us always leads us to the Father in the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). Feelings of abandonment may come, but the will remains rooted in the Father’s unchanging love.
1 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981, p. 664:
John’s question has been interpreted by commentators from the patristic period on (at least to the Reformation) as a fictive doubt: The imprisoned John used this device to strengthen and improve the understanding of his own disciples about Jesus. So, e.g. John Chrysostom (Hom. xxxvi in Matt. 11:2; PG, 57, 413-415); Augustine (Sermones de scripturis 66.3-4; PL 38. 432-433); Hilary (Comm. in Matt. 11:2; PL, 9, 978-979).
The Pulpit Commentary’s more comprehensive list of interpreters in this vein also includes Jerome, Ambrose and Theophylact among the Fathers, and Calvin, Beza, Melancthon, Stier and Bishop Wordsworth among the Protestants.
2 St. Jerome on Matthew 11:3 in The Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas.
3 Fitzmyer, p. 664. The New American Bible (Revised Edition) also supports this view. See footnotes to Matthew 11:2-6.
4 Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book IV, chapter 18:
But John is offended when he hears of the miracles of Christ, as of an alien god. Well, I on my side will first explain the reason of his offense, that I may the more easily explode the scandal of our heretic. Now, that the very Lord Himself of all might, the Word and Spirit of the Father, was operating and preaching on earth, it was necessary that the portion of the Holy Spirit which, in the form of the prophetic gift, had been through John preparing the ways of the Lord, should now depart from John, and return back again of course to the Lord, as to its all-embracing original. Therefore John, being now an ordinary person, and only one of the many, was offended indeed as a man, but not because he expected or thought of another Christ as teaching or doing nothing new, for he was not even expecting such a one. Nobody will entertain doubts about any one whom (since he knows him not to exist) he has no expectation or thought of. Now John was quite sure that there was no other God but the Creator, even as a Jew, especially as a prophet. Whatever doubt he felt was evidently rather entertained about Him whom he knew indeed to exist but knew not whether He were the very Christ.
5 Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Luke 7:19.
6 Expositor’s Greek Testament, Matthew 11:3.
7 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, 57, 4.
8 St. Ambrose writes in his Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 5.110:
If Christ is a prophet, then how is John greater than all prophets? Surely we do not deny that Christ is a prophet? On the contrary, I maintain both that the Lord is the Prophet of prophets and that John is greater than all, but of those born of a woman, not of a virgin. He was greater than those to whom he could be equal in the condition of birth. Another nature is not to be compared with human generations. There can be no comparison between man and God, for each is preferred to his own. There could be no comparison of John with the Son of God, so that he is thought to be below the angels.
From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke, Arthur A. Just Jr., editor, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 122.
26th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday (Year II)
Job 38:1, 12-21; 40:3-5
This infuriating question had Job and his friends entangled like a Gordian knot. Word after word and argument after argument submerged them deeper and deeper into the quicksand of “Why?”
When we think we have the answers to life’s riddles, words gush forth like a geyser as in Elihu’s speech:
For I am full of words;
the spirit within me compels me.
My belly is like unopened wine,
like wineskins ready to burst. (Job 32:18-19)
Philosophical debates and syllogisms have their place, but can they actually console the suffering or bring back the dead?
In chapter 38, Job’s wish is fulfilled. God breaks his long silence, but the fanciful scene of plaintiff and defendant sparring on equal footing is transformed into a one-way interrogation.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm and said:
Who is this who darkens counsel
with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins now, like a man;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth? (Job 38:1-4a)
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size? Surely you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it?
Into what were its pedestals sunk,
and who laid its cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Who shut within doors the sea,
when it burst forth from the womb,
When I made the clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it
and fastened the bar of its door,
And said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,
and here shall your proud waves stop? (Job 38:4a-11)
Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning
and shown the dawn its place
For taking hold of the ends of the earth,
till the wicked are shaken from it?
The earth is changed as clay by the seal,
and dyed like a garment;
But from the wicked their light is withheld,
and the arm of pride is shattered.
Have you entered into the sources of the sea,
or walked about on the bottom of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you,
or have you seen the gates of darkness?
Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?
Tell me, if you know it all…
You know, because you were born then,
and the number of your days is great! (Job 38:12-21)
Will one who argues with the Almighty be corrected?
Let him who would instruct God give answer! (Job 40:2)
Then Job answered the Lord and said:
Look, I am of little account; what can I answer you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I have spoken once, I will not reply;
twice, but I will do so no more. (Job 40:3-5)
Job’s perspective is corrected in the face of the unfathomable marvels of the universe beyond human manipulation. The six sides boxing in “Why?” collapse into infinity. How can a finite “Why?” ever hope to encompass an infinity beyond all speech and thought? Indivisibility has no slit for even a question mark to pass through.
Trying to answer the “Why?” of evil and suffering is like running in quicksand. How can a part of a whole grasp the whole?
In the face of real suffering, not “Why?” but “How?” must be addressed moment to moment. Suffering has been the crucible for some of the most creative responses to evil, such as that of the martyrs and survivors of Soviet gulags, concentration camps, and genocides.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa, Immaculee Ilibagiza and many other saintly men and women have demonstrated with their lives that the human spirit has the capacity to rise above evil and suffering by an otherworldly faith, hope, and love.
Like Christ, these brethren forgave their torturers and oppressors and became whole persons transcending their individuality. A part cannot grasp the whole, but self-emptying persons embody the whole by living out of their personal centers in communion with all other persons. “Each of us is the center of the universe,” wrote Solzhenitsyn.
Saints give proof of the human capacity to rise above the most diabolical circumstances, silencing the “Why” to embrace the “How” of creative suffering in the absence of rational answers. The saints of the gulags and concentration camps, and all who suffer heroically with divine love, are Job’s true friends—they lost everything and found the pearl of infinite value.
The Almighty God who overwhelmed Job out of a whirlwind would eventually send his Son into the inexplicable world of evil and suffering as a helpless, babbling infant in the arms of a young Virgin. Can a world assumed by divinity be a wasteland of doom, destruction and despair?
Job (humankind) sitting in the dust and ashes of mourning received a greater gift than any answer to his “Why?” in Jesus Christ. We received a heavenly and divine friend who sits in the ashes with us, and who assumed our dust as his own body.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
26th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday (Year II)
Job 19:21-27; Psalm 27
Are suffering and misfortune a sign of God’s wrath upon a sinner? Such a belief plagued the ancient world and hurled Job into a pit of scorn and derision from his neighbors (Job 12:4-5).
Jesus sought to remove this poison from the minds of his contemporaries:
As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him (John 9:1-3).
At that time some people who were present there told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” (Luke 13:1-5)
Job’s response to his plight is unusual in that he continually insisted on his own integrity. The author of Job affirms his blamelessness from the start, a pronouncement of God himself in the courts of heaven (Job 1:8).
Thus Job wants to face God in a court of law and duke it out.
I would set out my case before him,
fill my mouth with arguments (Job 23:4).
Job is so confident that he imagines a victory in a case against God:
Would he contend against me with his great power?
No, he himself would heed me!
There an upright man might argue with him,
and I would once and for all be delivered from my judge.
…if he tested me, I should come forth like gold (Job 23:6-7; 10).
Contrast St. Paul:
I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord (I Corinthians 4:4).
Job’s request for vindication seems so alien to the Christian narrative that many interpreters reject a Christological interpretation of Job’s “vindicator” (gaal or goel), made famous by Handel’s Messiah (I know that my redeemer liveth).
As for me, I know that my vindicator lives,
and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust.
This will happen when my skin has been stripped off,
and from my flesh I will see God:
I will see for myself,
my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him:
my inmost being is consumed with longing (Job 19:25-27).
A Christ figure, according to the logic of those who reject that interpretation, would not vindicate Job’s righteousness. Job would have to be, as his friends and neighbors insist, a wretched sinner for Christ to vindicate or redeem him. Christ did not come to uphold humankind’s innocence but to “die for sinners,” goes the logic.
Those who insist that Job’s living goel is not a foreshadowing of Christ offer other options. In Hebrew, the word for “vindicator” comes from the verb goel (to redeem, ransom, or act as kinsman). As a verb, it applied to buying back a field (Leviticus 25:25; Ruth 4:4, 6), something consecrated (Leviticus 27:13), or a slave (Leviticus 25:48-49). As a role, the goel in the Mosaic law was a kinsman go-between in legal matters, even a blood avenger who pursued the murderer of his slain relative (Numbers 35; Deuteronomy 19:6-7). The goel stepped in on behalf of another who was slain, wronged, or oppressed.
According to the New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnote: “The meaning of this passage is obscure because the original text has been poorly preserved and the ancient versions do not agree among themselves. Job asserts three times that he shall see a future vindicator (Hebrew goel), but he leaves the time and manner of this vindication undefined. The Vulgate translation has Job indicating a belief in resurrection after death, but the Hebrew and the other ancient versions are less specific.”
Some of the options that have been proposed as the identity of the goel include: (1) God himself; (2) a kinsman; (3) a member of the heavenly council. The first option is deemed implausible in a court scene in which God is the defendant.
The last option is alluded to by Eliphaz:
Call now! Will anyone respond to you?
To which of the holy ones will you turn?” (See footnote to Job 5:1).
Elihu also entertains this possibility:
If then there be a divine messenger,
a mediator, one out of a thousand,
to show him what is right,
He will take pity on him and say,
“Deliver him from going down to the pit;
I have found him a ransom” (Job 33:23-24).
Within the parameters of philology, history and related fields, a Christological allusion may be a leap far beyond the text. However, reading Sacred Scripture through the lens of Christ was characteristically patristic.
All sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ, “because all divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 134 quoting Hugh of St. Victor).
Perhaps Job’s insistence on getting a fair hearing opposite God in the heavenly court, instead of ruling out a Christological connection, might offer another angle on the strange events of the Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
Job’s world divided humankind into clean and unclean, righteous and unrighteous, blessed and cursed, etc. Caste-like divisions have no place in the Incarnation since the Son of God assumed humanity as one, universal Adam. All persons, including Job, are “ransomed,” to use Pauline language.
Job’s insistence on his righteousness before God might sound questionable (even Pharisaic) in another context, but in the narrative God himself confirmed it at the outset. One purpose of this insistence is to show that Job’s suffering is not due to personal sin.
Can the blameless Job long for Christ? Why not? The God-Man made it possible for human persons to see God “in the flesh” and “face to face”—a living icon. The infinite distance between earth and heaven that so frustrated Job was bridged in the person of the Son of God. Union and communion in and through Christ puts an end to all contention with the divine, the foundation of which is separation from God. Union silences all thought and speech.
The goal of Christianity is deification, which completes the initial cancellation of a debt or payment of a ransom. It is nothing less than the divinization of human nature—an unheard-of union with the consubstantial Trinity via the theandric God-Man. “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (St. Athanasius).
Job’s “righteousness” ends with moral rectitude (obedience to laws and rituals) but does not proceed to deification and ontological transformation. Heaven is imagined as a court with books, records, and words carved in stone:
Oh, would that my words were written down!
Would that they were inscribed in a record:
That with an iron chisel and with lead
they were cut in the rock forever! (Job 19:23-24)
How might Job respond to Jesus who said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)?
Job’s innocent suffering evokes a wonder that leaps beyond history to the timeless depths of the Cross event. Christ, as the Son of God, at no point left the eternal perichoresis of divinity. The primordial kenosis (self-emptying of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) has no link to creation or history.
Christ showed us the way to fulfill our true nature as persons in communion, the distortion of which is sin (egotism). Job and his friends did not view the fragmentation of humanity itself as a deficiency. They were content to be religiously observant and law-abiding members of society.
Humankind is essentially one. The sin Christ destroyed is singular: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Sin is separation and alienation.
The Cross is an expression in time of the Son’s timeless self-gift in his divine being—an immutable kenosis deeper than creation and redemption. Christ’s pure act of non-retaliatory love on the Cross manifested Trinitarian perichoresis in history.
This reflection has wandered far beyond the text of Job and is not an attempt at biblical interpretation. Whatever “vindicator” means in the original text, one thing is certain: Job is confident that he will “see God” (Job 19:26).
I believe that I shall see the bounty of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD with courage;
be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD (Psalm 27:13-14).
26th Week in Ordinary Time, Wednesday (Year II)
Job 9:1-12, 14-16; Psalm 88; Luke 9:57-62
Daily I call upon you, O LORD;
to you I stretch out my hands…
Why, O LORD, do you reject me;
why hide from me your face? (Psalm 88:10, 15)
Is God “just”? Job, like the Psalmist, struggled against a God who seemed indifferent to his suffering. Stricken with a skin disease and dispossessed of everything, his friends offered no consolation but only accusation.
“Reflect now, what innocent person perishes? Where are the upright destroyed?” counseled Eliphaz (Job 4:7).
Bildad also took the side of God against Job and his children:
“If your children have sinned against him
and he has left them in the grip of their guilt,
Still, if you yourself have recourse to God
and make supplication to the Almighty,
Should you be blameless and upright,
surely now he will rouse himself for you
and restore your rightful home.” (Job 8:4-6)
You deserve it, Job, his friends said. Search your heart and confess your sin, and the Lord will restore your fortunes. God’s justice is an inflexible principle and everyone gets what they deserve. An airtight theological argument?
Job refused to accept it.
It is all one! therefore I say:
Both the innocent and the wicked he destroys. (Job 9:22)
A just God? Not!
When the scourge slays suddenly,
he scoffs at the despair of the innocent. (Job 9:23)
Who, but God, permits evil?
The earth is given into the hands of the wicked;
he covers the faces of its judges.
If it is not he, who then is it? (Job 9:24)
Job held God accountable for his miserable plight and freely gave vent to his complaints. But who can argue against the Almighty and prevail? Job felt powerless.
Job answered his friends and said: I know well that it is so;
but how can a man be justified before God?
Should one wish to contend with him,
he could not answer him once in a thousand times.
God is wise in heart and mighty in strength;
who has withstood him and remained unscathed?
He removes the mountains before they know it;
he overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth out of its place,
and the pillars beneath it tremble.
He commands the sun, and it rises not;
he seals up the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
and treads upon the crests of the sea.
He made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the constellations of the south;
He does great things past finding out,
marvelous things beyond reckoning.
Should he come near me, I see him not;
should he pass by, I am not aware of him;
Should he seize me forcibly, who can say him nay?
Who can say to him, “What are you doing?”
How much less shall I give him any answer,
or choose out arguments against him!
Even though I were right, I could not answer him,
but should rather beg for what was due me.
If I appealed to him and he answered my call,
I could not believe that he would hearken to my words. (Job 9:1-12, 14-16)
Job’s God cannot be cut down to size and slotted into some architectonic system of theology. Incomprehensible evil and suffering detonate all conceivable systems.
“Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with his presence” (Paul Claudel).
Jesus flowed like water to the lowest places of the earth to fill them with his presence. Even a criminal on a cross identified with him.
“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Luke 9:58)
Job eventually learned to love and trust the Giver of all good gifts without the gifts. He was dispossessed against his will to struggle to that spiritual depth.
Jesus calls his disciples to a voluntary dispossession of any competing goods with the supreme good of the Kingdom of God.
“No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
I saw a ladder extended high up into the sky.
It seemed to reach into heaven.
Were angels ascending and descending?
Firefighters can be seen as angels, that’s for sure.
“The church is on fire.” That was the reality. The flames that consume wood and air have now been extinguished. Our parish has been pushed into the street. Most of the material damage was done to the steeple. It is pretty much gone. The bells collapsing inward. The large copper cross crashing onto Central Avenue. The roof too suffered. A large hole, allowing direct sunlight, presides directly above the altar.
The tabernacle and the statues are perfectly intact.
In other words, Jesus’ real presence and His Communion of Saints are alive and well.
No Resurrection without Crucifixion. No Easter Sunday without Good Friday.
The last service before the fire was The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—Friday after Ash Wednesday—the first Friday of Lent. The Mass was preceded by the Stations of the Cross. It was led by the women of The Sacred Heart Society.
The best poetry, the most romantic images, the most apropos settings are constructed by God Himself. Like good, basic, simple, yet shockingly profound haiku poetry—God’s work always contains three lines: One of Faith, One of Hope, One of Love.
Faith: There is a God. He is our father. He is good. All He does is good. He is ultimately in control. Nothing happens without His active or passive permission. He brings all to good. All back to Himself. His promises are good as gold. Better. Much. His promises are eternal. He promises everlasting peace. He promises joy beyond comprehension.
Hope: Jesus is with us every step of the way. Everything that happens to us can become an event that teaches us, instructs us, encourages us, and helps us become more like Him. It can propel us deeper into His presence. And Jesus is already victorious. He died for us, for you and for me, personally. He defeated death. Completely. And He has perfectly shown the way through. For Jesus not only makes His Father’s promises possible, He fulfills them. He not only provides salvation but also all the help and assistance we will ever need to reach salvation, our eternal home. All will be ok.
Love: The Holy Spirit—the Love of the Father for the Son, the Love of the Son for the Father—is awesome. Period. And there is nothing that can stop God from loving us, each and every one of us, as individual and greatly prized children. Love. Love. Love. Say it out loud. Breathe it. It is the breath of life. With Faith and Hope we can freely Love. With Love we can continually Believe and Hope.
But He never says it will be easy, this pilgrimage on earth. But He says it is worth it.
Suffering is not a choice. We will experience suffering. No one gets out alive. The only real question then is this: How will we receive suffering, and how will we handle it?
There is only one acceptable answer: In Union With Jesus.
If we suffer in union with Jesus, then our suffering is His suffering. And Jesus’ suffering is fruitful, always. It redeems. It brings to life. It resurrects.
How then can we do it?
The answer is always the same: Grace
We must cooperate with God’s grace. And that cooperation begins with posture, with how we position ourselves. And the posture needed is prayer. In His Holy Name. We need to ask Jesus for what He will not deny: To participate in His salvation of the world.
To participate in His life, His death, and His resurrection:
Lord, grant me the grace to endure all suffering in perfect union with You. Grant me the patience and strength and courage to accept and carry my cross daily. The grace to not desire that the circumstances be immediately changed, nor the desire that I be removed from the struggle—but instead the grace of walking with You, Lord Jesus, through the suffering—praising You constantly—thanking You continually for the privilege of no longer being a mere bystander, but now instead an active participant in Your great work of salvation—filled the entire time with Faith, with Hope, and with Love—knowing that great work, heavenly work, tremendous good is being done. Whether it is seen or unseen. And also please grant, my Lord and my God, the grace of always giving all honor and praise to You and You alone. “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and for ever.”
The Bad Thief
Savior in between
how is it
that you and i
can be all three?
we know of Jesus
as perfect can be
we know too
of the good thief
turning toward Goodness
beside the good thief
one with the tree
we know too
what happened then
to the prodigal thief
a humble heart
sorrow for sin
by a sinless man
God the father
accepting the fee
the precious blood
of Jesus Christ
the good thief free
what of the other one
what of the thief
what of him
deserving to hang
what of that poor man
just like you and me
just like you and me
hanging above Mary
and the disciple
upon a third
rarely talked about tree
who is he?
but you and me
i am the bad thief
and so are you
i have stolen
stolen so much
what have you
in your pocket
that isn’t thine?
Jesus makes it
what happens to thieves
thieves like us
who simply say
yet even His promise
full of mercy
of paradise in fact
that very day
his good thieving legs
from being smashed
his repentant body
head to toe
not even Christ’s promise
from the King Himself
removes the good thief
from the gift
from the gift that is his cross
but what of the other one
what of you and me
what of us
thieves who also lie
who reject justice
what of the bad thief
can be redeemed
what of the bad thief
in you and me
God only knows
upon the dead
both the living
and the deceased
upon us all
upon Your children
Your children turned thieves
and You alone
Savior in between
how is it
that you and i
and all the rest
of all humanity
to such a degree
Savior in between
how is it
that you and i
are all three?
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…
One more day. A few more hours. A couple more minutes.
The joy of wrapping things up. Of finishing strong. Competing well. Seeing things through.
The anticipation of rest. Of a good meal. The best. Of the company of those you love, of those who know you best.
How can there be another round? How can I possibly do one more day?
Questions we ask when we are truly spent.
To be in Christ’s Passion is to think that there can’t possibly be more. That this, this very moment, has to be the end.
But Christ continues. So does His Passion.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
—2 Corinthians 12:9
He’s sweating blood in the garden. He’s scourged at the pillar. He’s crowned with sharp thorns.
He carries His cross. He’s stripped. He’s nailed.
He hangs for hours, for all passing by to see.
But He hangs not alone.
A powerful woman, a tender-hearted disciple, a handful of faithful women, a couple of good law-abiding men, a few soldiers doing their duty, an evolving circle of “innocent” bystanders, and of course, a hoard of mockers. They are all on hand.
Yes, the mockers, they are there for sure. But they don’t stay the entire time. Their shame shows them the door.
The evil spirits, on the other hand, they stay till the end. Taunting. Challenging. Hating Christ’s inevitable victory over death:
“Come off that cross, you coward! Fight like a man!”
There are times when laughs and cries sound very much the same. When the heart bursts forth from the valley of death.
“Is he laughing?”
“Is he crying?”
“Has he gone insane?”
Or has he finally finished taking upon Himself all the blame?
“It is finished.”
And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.
And that was just the beginning.
Almost like the first week of school.
Now all of Jesus’ younger siblings get to follow His rule:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame
and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
“And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Last Wednesday in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope embraced and kissed a man suffering from a rare disease called neurofibromatosis, which causes his skin to be covered with awful tumors and sores. Most people would find it hard to look at him; much harder to embrace him.
A writer in the New Yorker Magazine said “The image was electrifying, in a way that mercy can be.”
That phrase is also true of the image at the center of our faith.
I think the greatest of popes was Gregory the Great, who held the church together during Rome’s free fall into poverty in the 6th century. He kept his balance by reflecting on the scriptures, and one of his favorite books to reflect on was the Book of Job. Here he is drawing on Job’s wisdom:
“Paul saw the riches of wisdom within himself though he himself was outwardly a corruptible body, which is why he says ‘We have this treasure in earthen vessels’. In Job, then, the earthenware vessel felt gaping sores externally; while an interior treasure remained unchanged. The gaping outward wounds did not stop the treasure of wisdom within from welling up and uttering these holy and instructive words: ‘If we have received good at the hand of the Lord, shall we not receive evil?’ By the good he means the good things given by God, both temporal and eternal; by evil he means the blows he is suffering from in the present.”
Gregory quotes from Isaiah:
“‘I am the Lord, unrivalled,
I form the light and create the dark.
I make good fortune and create calamity,
it is I, the Lord, who do all this.’
“I form the light, and create the dark, because when the darkness of pain is created by blows from without, the light of the mind is kindled by instruction within.
‘I make good fortune and create calamity…’ Notice Job’s skill as he meets the arguments of his wife. ‘If we have received good at the hand of the Lord, shall we not receive evil?’
“It’s consoling, when we suffer afflictions, to remember our Maker’s gifts to us. Painful things will not depress us if we quickly remember also the gifts that we have been given. As Scripture says, ‘In the day of prosperity do not forget affliction, and in the day of affliction, do not forget prosperity.’”